The Santa Barbara Grand Jury has indicted two women as accessories to murder for the parts they played in the May 15 stabbing death of Vincent Velasquez. The 26-year-old victim was killed in Isla Vista during a late-night alcohol-fueled fight on Abrego Road. Police arrested Benjamin Vargas, 20, two days after the incident and charged him with homicide.
After months of additional investigation and prompted by the now-unsealed indictment, police recently arrested 21-year-old Karen Medina (Benjamin Vargas’s girlfriend and the mother of their child) and 29-year-old Maria Vargas (Benjamin Vargas’s sister). Medina is accused of assaulting Velasquez during the deadly scuffle — during which he was stabbed 16 times — and Maria Vargas is charged with driving Benjamin Vargas and Medina away from the scene of the crime. The two women were booked into County Jail on October 21 and released a week later when they each posted $500,000 bail. Benjamin Vargas has pled not guilty and remains behind bars.
Appearing before Judge George Eskin last Friday, Medina, Maria Vargas, and their attorneys — Adam Pearlman and Mark Pachowicz, respectively — hammered out logistical issues before the women’s case could proceed to trial. The attorneys asked Eskin to lift the ban on communication that had been imposed on Medina and Maria Vargas as part of their release from jail.
They were originally ordered to not talk to each other or Benjamin Vargas at all, but Eskin ruled the three can communicate as long as they don’t talk about the trial. He agreed with the lawyers that the suspects’ living situation — Medina lives with Maria Vargas at the Vargas’s house — and the upcoming holidays make total noncommunication impractical. Pearlman and Pachowicz, citing the need to study the 500-page Grand Jury indictment, also asked that the beginning of the trial be delayed for at least another four to five months, which Eskin agreed to.
During the hearing, Medina — sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom from Maria Vargas — was overheard whispering to a family member, “I’m glad he’s not here,” in reference to Benjamin. Due to court error, Benjamin Vargas wasn’t transported from County Jail for the hearing, but his attorney, Ron Bamieh, took the opportunity to blast prosecutor Hans Almgren and the District Attorney’s Office for issues with the Grand Jury report.
Bamieh complained that, because of the filing, he can no longer call Maria Vargas and Medina to the stand during Benjamin Vargas’s trial as the women now face their own charges connected to the crime. They were to be two of his key witnesses, Bamieh said. “[Almgren] is trying to gut my witnesses,” Bamieh told the court. “That’s fine, but there will consequences for that.” (Bamieh can still technically call the two, but they will reportedly plead their fifth amendment rights so as not to incriminate themselves in their own trials.)
Bamieh also criticized Almgren for supposedly not providing key information on evidence and witnesses to his office, and said the Grand Jury indictment was full of baseless accusations. Almgren countered that he has not received critical paperwork from Bamieh and asked how Bamieh could be so dismissive of the Grand Jury report if, as of Friday, he hadn’t even read it yet.
After a few more heated back-and-forths, the attorneys wrangled over a start date for Benjamin Vargas’s trail. This Tuesday, Eskin — taking into account Almgren’s upcoming prosecution of the George Ied murder case — decided that it will begin March 19.